Warning: this is the first part of a three part story containing much Angst
The thing about a kneecap is that in general it belongs on the front of the leg. The thing about mine was that it was round the side. I saw it there, under the skin, for a moment even as I straightened my leg and it slid back to its proper place.
Then I yelled.
Medical opinion later was that I was entitled to yell. I wasn’t the only one who had seen it: Chris saw it too, and he turned away and threw up on the touchline, but for a professional rugby player he’s dreadfully squeamish. One way or another, that broke up the pile of bodies and everybody heaved themselves to their feet except me. I lay there, watching the horizon tilt and spin, swearing frantically and wondering if I was about to burst into tears. Then the physio arrived, took one look and waved for the stretcher, and that was the end of my match.
There’s a doctor on site nowadays, but I still had to go for x-rays, and it was well into the evening before I was delivered home into Piet’s hands.
“What did they say?”
“Ligaments. No bone damage. They don’t want to put it in plaster but they’ve taped it, and I’m to see Stan tomorrow to have it strapped again. It’s to be done every day because they want it kept under constant pressure, and it will have to be redone as the swelling changes. Stan said that after he’s done it tomorrow he’ll call Elaine” (she’s the club physio and bloody good, once you’ve got over the shock of dealing with her. She reckons we’re all against the idea of a female physio until the first time we’re in pain, when we would deal with anybody at all) “and talk her through what the doctors said. Meanwhile I’m to keep my weight off it, have it ice-packed as much as I can, I’ve got a huge bottle of pain-killers and I can have injections if I need them.”
“It could be worse, then, koekie. I know that is little consolation.”
I looked up at him from my sprawl on the sofa. It was no consolation at all.
“I was playing well, Piet,” I mourned. “I really wanted. . .” My voice broke. He eased an arm underneath me and lifted me enough to work himself into the space, so that he could hold me. “I know, my hart. You wanted your promotion.”
I wanted my move. I play standoff for the club but when I go upstairs to play with the big boys, I play at centre, which I don’t like as much. But I’m not the only one who wants the standoff’s position, not by a long way. We had been playing a series of friendlies, and the people who make those sorts of decisions were moving us all round, letting the juniors have a go at new things really, and I’d had my chance at standoff in the second half. And I had been doing well, I knew I had. Only now, I wasn’t going to be fit for the next match. And talent is wonderful and should take me a long way, but unfortunately, luck comes into it too. The man in the post takes some removal, and the man in the post wouldn’t be me. That hurt at least as much as my knee, and I bit my lip. Big boys don’t cry, at least not for disappointment.
“Beminde, do not refine too much on it. Injury is inevitable in this sport. We do all we can to avoid it, but you have done no permanent damage. You will play again before the season is over, and I do not doubt that the position you want will be yours. Perhaps not this year, no, but you will have it.”
“I don’t know,” I choked. “Spider played well in the first half, and he wants it too. He’s as good as me.”
“Spider – why do they call him that, do you know? – is as good as you, yes, but he is the finished article. You are raw still, I can see it. He is good, but he will never be better than he is now. You have some way to go yet, and although you are no better than him now, you will in the future surpass him. The selectors will see this. Also, I am not convinced about his fitness. I think his training has been badly planned, and if he is overworked he will break down.”
I was a little comforted. My training is planned like a campaign and failures in it get me. . . well, we all know where they get me. I spared a thought to be thankful that the marks from my last failure had gone down. I’d had three doctors, two nurses and a physio on my case this afternoon, and several of them had wanted to stick needles in my arse.
“Enough, Phil. It is hard, I agree, but you must not make too much of it. Now, have you eaten anything?”
“No, and the doctor said I shouldn’t take the painkillers on an empty stomach. But I’m a bit queasy still.”
“Then let us find something you could eat, and I will help you to bed. I think you are perhaps a little shocked still, you are a bad colour. A night’s sleep will help.”
“Here! I’m not going to be able to stand up to cook! We’ll starve!”
“We shall not starve, cheeky boy. I know you think I cannot cook, but it is not so. I will feed you.”
“Piet, it is so. You are, without exception, the worst cook I have ever encountered.”
“Then you will sit on the kitchen chair with your leg propped up, and you will teach me better. I am willing to learn. But for tonight, what about eggs? Even I can hardly spoil those.”
He tried, though.
I asked Tim if he would come with me to see Phil, and he would not. He had, he said, several exercises to finish for his MBA work, and if I were going out he would take the chance to go on with them. Ach, he primed me with all sorts of messages for Phil, and a handful of books he thought Phil might like to borrow. He would, he said, come with me next time.
I bit down on the sharp response that he had said that both last time and the time before. There was no point getting upset about it, hey? He had a lot of work to get through, and he was worrying about it. I helped him where I could, but I do not understand these things and I could do little for him. Instead I took the books, and a half share in the casserole I had made earlier, and went out to the car. Phil was teaching Piet to cook, but it was not an absolute success, and he said that every meal was a challenge. I thought it might be good for them to manage an evening without the potential for a quarrel, hey?
Phil was glad to see me. That made me feel good: I did not think that anybody except Phil and Piet had been particularly glad to see me for several weeks.
“Hansie! Come in. Piet, put the kettle on, will you? What’s new, Hansie?”
“I have brought you some books which Tim thinks you would like. This one and this one he would like back, but the others he says you can take to the charity shop when you are done with them.”
“He’s studying again, then.” Phil looked disappointed.
“Ach, Phil, he goes to work, he comes home, he spreads the papers across the table. He does not go out, he does not watch the television, nothing. These books, he bought them a month ago but I do not believe he has read either. I begin to wish he had never started this MBA. He has not been to the gym in a month, he will not come to the club, I went to the cinema on my own. I am a. . . what did Jim call it? A study widower.”
“James knows about this, Hansie?” That was Piet.
“Jim it was who had the idea, and who pays for the course, but I do not think he knows the amount of work that Tim does. Me, I think it is too much, but how can I tell? Such a course would be beyond me, and I do not know whether Tim needs to work as hard as he does. He says he does, and how can I deny it? Ach, pay no attention to me. I am as sulky as the child who wants a bedtime story when Papa is busy. Tell me how you are, Phil. Are you managing any better with the crutches?”
“Much, thank you. I only knocked over four things today, and I can get up and down the stairs in less than five minutes. And guess what, Hansie! I’ve been offered a job.”
I was surprised by that. Professional rugby is a job, I thought. “Doing what, boet?”
“Writing a rugby column for the Gazette. Once a fortnight. Actually, what they wanted was to put my name on something written by one of their own staff, but I wouldn’t agree to that, so I’m to write four myself, and then we’ll see if they’ll take any more. To tell the truth, I rather wanted to talk to Tim about it.”
“To Tim? Why to Tim?”
“Because I’ve written the first one and I wanted to ask him about it. Piet’s seen it, and I’ll show you too if you like, but I really need to have it looked at by. . . well by someone who’s interested in the rugby but who doesn’t play. I know you’ll understand it, but I need to know if it’s too technical for a general reader. When Tim said he was coming tonight I thought he might look at it for me.”
“When do you need to send it off?”
“Next Monday. So do you think. . . Would you take it home with you, Hansie? And ask him? And tell him not to be tactful. Tactful is no good to me. Now, I hear the kettle and if we aren’t quick, Piet will make the coffee. I’ve got him to the point where he can make drinkable tea but his coffee is still awful, so would you mind doing it?”
I stayed quite late with them in the end. Phil was. . . Phil was rather pointedly cheerful. This thing with his knee had been a big disappointment to him, hey? There was to be a match in Cardiff at the weekend and he had expected to play.
“I wanted to go anyway – I wanted to see it and it isn’t being televised, but Piet can’t go, he’s got meetings all Saturday morning, and I don’t fancy travelling that far on the train. Never mind, it can’t be helped.”
“But I think, boet, that perhaps it can, if you would wish to go. Tim is going to. . . Carlisle, I think he said. The people in his tutor group are getting together to have a joint study day, and he is going on the train. So I am abandoned again, and if you would like to go to Cardiff, we could go.”
His face lit up, but he looked at Piet. “What do you think, Piet? Tickets wouldn’t be a problem, Chris said I could have his.”
“I think it would be a good idea, and very kind of Hansie, but I think you would be very tired, koekie. I should not like you to have to travel when you were tired or in pain. And it is a long way with no one to share the driving with Hansie.”
“Well, but Piet, there is no problem. We can drive up early on Saturday morning, and stay the night. Then we need not hurry back on Sunday. I will not let Phil come to any harm. And if he should be in pain, well, it is only Wales, after all, not the High Veldt. They have doctors in Wales, hey?”
I got a klap for cheek, but Piet laughed, and approved the plan. As he showed me out, he said, seriously, “It will be good for Phil, for he cannot get about. I take him to the gym, to do his upper body work, but he is bored and frustrated, although he hides it well. A trip with you will be a change for him. But Hansie, tell me, can it really be necessary for Tim to study so hard? We have not seen him in weeks. And I think, too, that you are as frustrated by it as Phil.”
I shrugged. “Ja wel, what is to say? I might as well not be there. Ach, it will end eventually. And I owe Tim so much that it will not hurt me to put up with something now.”
His lips thinned a little and one eyebrow went up. “It costs you something, Hansie. Do not undervalue your own importance. Let Tim know that you think he does too much: he is always inclined to think that he must do everything, to take on too much. And do not under any circumstances become so perturbed about it that you and Phil get overexcited and break out to mischief in Wales, or there will be two sore backsides as well as one sore knee.”
“I do not doubt it,“ I assured him fervently, and his laughter followed me as I went to the car.
Hansie staggered down the stairs as I turned the page. “My liefie, what are you doing? It is three o’clock in the morning. Can you not sleep?”
“No, I’m sitting here piling up the zeds like nobody’s business. Of course I can’t bloody sleep.”
“But what are you doing?”
“I thought if I was awake anyway I might as well put together some notes for my assignment.”
“Ach, Timmy, come back to bed, hey? It’s cold down here.”
“If you’re cold, go back to bed. I want to finish this.”
“Timmy. . .”
“For God’s sake, Hansie, go back to bed! I can’t sleep, I want to do this, I’m not cold. Stop nagging, will you!”
For a moment, I thought he was going to haul me up off the chair, but then he turned and went back up the stairs. For another moment I regretted having snapped at him, but then the idea I had been chasing came back to me and I grabbed at a pen to get it down before it fled again. It was nearly five before I went back to bed, and twenty to eight when Hansie shook me awake. That’s not usual. He’s not a morning person and it’s very rare for him to find me still in bed.
“Tim, you are going to work today?”
“Hnnnnh? Whassatime? Oh fuck! Hansie, why did you let me sleep so late?”
“If you look to your left, you will see the cup of tea that I brought you half an hour ago, when you assured me that you were awake and getting up. I am going out in twenty minutes, but I wanted to know if I should say that you were not coming in.”
“No, of course not! I’ll be in. I’ll drive myself, you just go.”
“Timmy, what time did you get up last night?”
“Oh, I don’t know. . . Half one?”
“And what time did you come back to bed?”
“A bit after four, I think,” I said, mentally crossing my fingers.
“You just did not sleep?”
“I said so, didn’t I? Get off my case, Hansie.”
I know, I know. Asking for trouble, and, I’ll admit, faintly surprised not to get it. I was sleeping very badly and I had been for a month: probably two nights in three I was waking at two and not going back to sleep before four or five. The course work loomed at the back of my mind all the time. I had taken on too much and my God, was I paying the price.
It had been Jim’s idea in the first place, and once he offered to fund it out of the training budget it seemed a shame not to go for it. There were so many possibilities when we started looking into it that they made my head spin. One year. Two years. Three years. Part time. Full time. Residential. Correspondence. I simply didn’t give as much attention to choosing as I should have done and I didn’t take on board exactly how much work was involved. Or how hard it was. Look, I don’t need to go coy and self-deprecating here, do I? I’m smart. I’m smarter than Hansie. I’m a lot smarter than Phil. In academic terms, at least, all right. I had good results at school, I had good results at university. I had. . . This sounds dreadfully arrogant. I had never before failed anything academic. In fact, I don’t think I had ever failed anything, because I had managed to persuade Jim to let me drop violin lessons about the time they became difficult. But this! I wasn’t in danger of failing it, but I simply wasn’t getting the sort of results I had always been accustomed to. And that piqued me. If Phil’s failing is physical vanity, mine is intellectual vanity. And of course, I wanted to please Jim. To make him proud of me. God knows why I felt the need to add something else: I know Jim loves me and values me and the rest of it.
That was Friday; I had been up every night that week except Tuesday. Fortunately Hansie is not a light sleeper, and I don’t think he knew quite how upset my nocturnal habits were. Still, it was just a matter of getting the workload under control and then all would be well again. Only Friday wasn’t a good day. It started as I said, and then I got a rocket from Jim for something I hadn’t finished which he wanted, and I had to admit to having forgotten it, so then I had to try to sort it in my lunch break, which meant that Hansie and I didn’t get a chance to talk. And in the evening, when he wanted to open a bottle of wine, I really had to get on with my assignment. At bedtime he watched me pack my case.
“Do you want me to drop you at the station tomorrow?”
“No, there’s no need for you to get up. I’ll have to be gone very early.”
“Ja, my liefie, but so will I. I am to collect Phil, but we can drop you off after that in good time for your train.”
I stared at him blankly. “Collect Phil?”
He sighed. It sounded suspiciously like exasperation. “Yes, Timmy: Phil. Do you remember him? Our friend? I am taking him to Cardiff tomorrow.”
“What for? Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“I did. He and I are going to the rugby. I will be back on Sunday. I told you this the night I went over there, the night I brought back that draft of his newspaper column.”
“What newspaper column?”
“Timmy, I told you all this! You promised to read it.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, I do remember something about it. It’s here somewhere. I’ll have a look at it when I’ve got a moment. Tomorrow on the train. I’m too tired now. Yes, please, drop me at the station. I’ll get a taxi home again, it’ll be cheaper than leaving the car in the station car-park all day. Now please can we go to bed? I’m so tired.”
We went upstairs. When I came out of the bathroom, Hansie was already in bed, and he snuggled up to me, nuzzling at my neck. “If I am not to see you until Sunday. . .”
“Oh, please, Hansie, don’t. I’m too tired.”
He rolled away, saying nothing. Saying it very loudly. But he went to sleep easily enough; I didn’t. I don’t think I dropped off until after two, and we were up at absolute sparrowfart.
Phil was in nauseatingly bright shape for that hour of the morning, particularly given that he’s a night owl rather than an early riser. I couldn’t remember ever having seen him so cheerful before ten.
“Hi, Tim, how’s it going? Bet you wish you were coming with us.”
I did rather. Piet came to the door to see him off, and I saw him give me a rather searching look, but he said nothing other than vague greetings. He turned to Hansie. “Now, remember what I said. Do not let Phil do too much. Do not let him stand for any length of time. And do not under any circumstances sing the song. . .”
“About the springbok and the sheep, ja, I know. Have no fear, Piet, I will look after my little brother.”
I laughed. “Do we believe this, Piet? I reckon they’ll be in trouble by coffee time, don’t you?”
“Tim, if Phil comes to any harm in Hansie's care, I will spank them both so hard that they will not sit down in a month.”
“Excuse me? I’m lame, I’m neither deaf nor stupid. Would you all mind not talking across me as if I weren’t there? Hansie and I are going to Wales to see the rugby. What possible trouble could we get into?”
Piet shuddered theatrically. “Koekie, you and Hansie manage to get into types of trouble together which it has never even occurred to Tim or me to forbid. Always we are chasing you to keep up. There, my hart, go. Enjoy yourself. Call me tonight. Tim, have a good day on your course. Me, I am going back to bed for an hour with the newspaper and my coffee.”
I rather wished I was going to do that, too. We set off for the station, with Hansie and Phil winding each other up and laughing like idiots. I wished they would calm down a bit, I had the start of a headache. Phil twisted to look over the seat at me.
“Did you read that thing I sent with Hansie? What did you think?”
I looked blankly at him for a moment, before catching Hansie's eye in the rear-view mirror.
“Oh, I. . . um. . . I’ve got it in my briefcase. Sorry, Phil, I haven’t had a moment. I’ll have a look at it today.”
The animation died out of his face, and he said, politely, “Oh, only if you have time.” Then he gave Hansie a rather odd look, but Hansie was pulling in to the front of the station, and I hadn’t time to think about it any more.
I hadn’t time to think about them any more. The train to Carlisle was busy, and my plan to get a considerable amount of reading done for my next assignment rather went by the board, so by the time I got to my tutor group I wasn’t in the best of tempers. The day was something of a waste of time too: I didn’t seem to be able to get a grip on the simplest of topics and by the time we packed up, quite early, I was in a vile temper, not improved by the discovery that I had just missed a train. Inspection of the board told me, though, that I could get the next express going north, and change at some godforsaken hamlet and pick up something going south that wouldn’t make me too late. I opened my case and pulled out the notes from the case study. Perhaps if I read them through again I might be able to make more sense of them.
I couldn’t. I could have wept with frustration. I dropped them on my lap, and a typed sheet slid sideways from between the pages. I lifted it, and read, in some confusion, an intelligent and clearly worded résumé of some of the problems currently afflicting Premiership rugby. It was only at the bottom of the page that a particular turn of phrase shouted at me that this was Phil’s work. I would never have expected him to be able to express himself so stylishly, and at the same time so simply. What on earth was it for? What had Hansie said? A newspaper column? So why had he given it to me? I shut my eyes and tried to remember what Hansie had said.
And opened them again in Edinburgh.
I sat in the police station and simply wondered what to do. My headache had reached pneumatic drill proportions, and I was starting to feel sick. I was going to have to swallow my pride and ask somebody for help, but Hansie was in Wales; Mary has relatives in Edinburgh, but none I know except Great Aunt Janet, and she’s over eighty, deaf as a post and in a nursing home. No help there. And Jim. . . Piet. But Jim is my uncle so he’ll get me out of this, I argued with myself, and the irritating little voice of my subconscious, which on occasion has a great deal too much to say for itself, snapped back: when you fuck up, it’s Piet you confess to nowadays. Jim has effectively handed over to Hansie the duty of being your rock, and when Hansie isn’t in the office you go to the Alpha Top, and you know that perfectly well. Anything else is disingenuous. I dragged out my mobile and dialled before I could change my mind.
“Pieter de Vries.”
“Piet? Oh Piet, I’m in such a mess, I don’t know what to do.”
“Timmy? What is wrong?”
“Oh, God, Piet, I’ve been so stupid. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid. And I don’t know what to do.”
“So what is wrong? Where are you, Tim?”
“Edinburgh. I’m at a police station in Edinburgh.”
“A police station? What is it? Are you hurt?”
“No. Although I feel dreadful. And I can’t believe I’ve been so dim!”
“Timmy, you will have to calm down. You are not telling me anything except that you need me to help you. I cannot help if I do not know the facts. Now, you are in Edinburgh. Why?”
“I fell asleep on the train. I was only going one station before I had to change, but I must have slept for hours. And while I was asleep. . . Piet, somebody has picked my pocket and emptied my wallet. No money, no credit cards, no chequebook. I’ve got about eight quid in loose change. I was sitting on my phone so they didn’t get that.”
“I see. If you are in a police station, I presume you have reported the theft?”
“Yes, but there won’t be anything they can do.”
“No, but you can get the cards stopped. Let us see about getting you home, first. Let me think. If your wallet is gone. . .”
“It isn’t, just the spendable contents. The wallet itself was left. I’ve got. . . um. . . a driving licence but no car, and a library ticket, and a gym membership card.”
“Well, but that is good. We can work with that. Tell me the address of the police station. Good. Now, I will call you back as soon as I can, but it might be half an hour or so. You will stay where you are, Tim.”
“And Tim? Do not worry. We will sort everything out. Trust me.”
“I do. Sir.”
“But you said you felt bad. Why is that?”
“Oh, I’ve just got a splitting headache, and an upset stomach, that’s all.”
“Well, ask the desk sergeant where you can get some painkillers. I will call you back. Do not worry, Tim, we can sort it all.”
I hadn’t even thought of asking the desk sergeant, which shows how far out of things I was. He directed me to a vending machine in the gents which provided me with aspirin (although they in turn came close to making me sick). It took forty minutes for Piet to call me back.
“Timmy? There will be a cab come for you shortly. It is paid for, but you have enough money to tip the driver, yes? He will take you to the airport. You are booked on the British Midlands flight to Nottingham, but you will need your driving licence as identification. They will also have an envelope for you at the information desk: they will ask you to identify yourself, and they will ask you for your middle name, and Phil’s and Hansie's. I will pick you up at Nottingham.”
“Piet. . .”
“It is all arranged, Tim, it was not difficult. Now, your bank. You need to stop your cards.”
“I can do that as soon as I get home. I’ve got one of those all-in-one policies where a single call stops everything, but I don’t know who to phone, or what the policy number is.”
“That should be done at once. Remember, I have the spare key for the house, just as you have ours. Is this somewhere I could find it?”
“I – yes. In the desk drawer. There’s a file for insurances.”
“Will you trust me to – ”
“Piet, please. Don’t ask me again if I trust you.”
“Then do you wish me to find this for you, or to leave it until you get home?”
I didn’t want – I really didn’t want! – to put Piet to any more trouble, but my cards had already been gone for several hours. Long enough to hit the credit limit, but I wasn’t liable for anything after I reported them stolen. “No, please. Do it now.”
“I will go over and get the details and call you again. I think you will have to make the report yourself.”
He called me while I was in the cab, and another five minutes saw my cheque book and credit cards stopped. I tipped the cab driver, which left me with a handful of very small change indeed, and went, rather doubtfully, to the check-in desk.
“Mr Creed? Yes sir, have you some I.D.? Thank you. Any luggage to check? The flight will be boarding in about ten minutes.”
Then I went, even more doubtfully, to the information desk, where I confirmed my own middle name as James, Hansie's as Martinus Christiaan, and Phil’s as Anthony, in exchange for which I received a plain envelope containing fifty pounds in cash, with a note inside saying: Pieter says just in case.
The flight was mercifully short, and with no luggage to collect I was straight through to the concourse and looking round within ten minutes of landing. Piet was leaning on a pillar, waiting. An unlikely looking guardian angel, all angles and sharpnesses, and I had to fight the temptation to hurl myself onto his chest. He saw that, I think, for he greeted me briskly, warningly. There would be no public display, thank you very much.
He trotted me equally briskly to his car, and I suddenly realised how far from home we still were. I had pulled him up and down the country to look after me, and he wasn’t even my partner. “Piet, I’m really sorry about this. I feel such a fool.”
He spared me a glance from the motorway traffic. “We will not talk about it now. You will explain it to me when I am not driving and I can give you my full attention.” Shit. Piet’s full attention is something that in general I prefer not to have. “But you may think about what you are going to tell me, starting with why you have such circles under your eyes, and what you have been doing to be so tired and ill that someone can touch you, and touch you fairly intimately, empty your trouser pocket, while you slept in public, and you would not notice.” I had been trying not to think about that. “How is your head?”
“Better, thank you. A bit.”
“And your stomach?”
I made a face. “The aspirin didn’t help that much.”
“When did you eat last?”
“We stopped for lunch, but I was headachy even then, so I didn’t eat a lot.”
There was a moment’s silence and then he prompted, “But?”
“I could hear a ‘but’.”
“Ah. But I don’t like to eat that early in the morning, so I didn’t have much. Just some coffee.”
“And let me guess. You have been drinking coffee all day.”
He gave a snort of exasperation. “And then you are surprised that your stomach is out of order? Timmy, you look dreadful. You are not just a little tired, you are grey, you are plainly not eating, you are. . . Ach, I said we would not do this in the car. We will speak of something else.”
He was silent for a moment, and I bit my lip hard to control myself. One more word and I was going to howl. He knew that, I think, for he took his hand from the wheel, and dropped it briefly over mine.
Another thirty miles and he pulled in to a service area. “We will have something to drink – you will not have any more coffee – and you will eat something. I would not choose to have you eat this sort of food, but Phil says still that anything I make is marginally worse, so we will take the lesser of the evils.”
“He teaches me to cook. I can make passable spaghetti two times out of three now, but my potatoes are still either rocks or soup. He despairs of me. Come, boetie, choose something, and when you have eaten we will find you some more painkillers, for I can tell you are still not comfortable.”
I wasn’t, true, and – well, I almost wished to be less comfortable. I had the ominous feeling that presently I was going to be about as uncomfortable as it’s possible to be, and if it hadn’t been for the knowledge that there was still a fairly long drive ahead of us, I could have wished to have it over. But we ordered some tea and I chose a sandwich which I thought I could get down and made an effort. We were still sitting when Piet’s phone rang.
“Hallo, yes? Phil. Have you had a good time? What sort of match was it? Good. And you are not too tired? No, I am sure Hansie has been careful of you. No, I am not at home, I am collecting Tim. Is Hansie there? Oh, well, tell him when he returns that Tim is spending the night at ours. Listen, Phil, I thought this morning after you left that you should call Spider before the match to wish him well, but when I tried to call you to suggest it, your phone was turned off. But perhaps if he had a good match, you could call him and say so. Ach, you were ahead of me, then, if you thought to do it this morning. Good. Do not sit up drinking too late with Hansie, will you, koekie? And do not, on any account, sing in a public place the song. . . oh, you do remember. No, my hart, I am teasing you only. There, go, good night.”
We sat another moment, and then I said, in a small voice, “You didn’t tell him where you were or what a mess I had made of things.”
“No. I would not tell him much anyway, these are your concerns. You will yourself tell him anything you wish him to know. I will tell him merely that your day went badly and you needed a little help. And he would tell Hansie who would be worried. They are in a bar, so Hansie will not be able to drive home to you tonight in any event, and there is no call for Hansie to be worried about you. You are not hurt, there is nothing that cannot be put right. You may perhaps have lost some money but that is all. It will wait until the morning. Come, we can go on.”
I can’t begin to describe how bad I felt. It was long past midnight when we got in, and Piet followed me into the hall. “Now, boet, go upstairs and run yourself a bath. Fifteen minutes relaxation will make you fit for bed, and I will find you something to put on. Your toothbrush is in the cabinet.”
“Piet, really, just let me call a cab and go home. You’ve done so much for me already and I – I’ll go and start the bath, shall I?” He was giving me the Look, and his face appeared to be composed entirely of nose and cheekbones.
“That would be wise, Timmy, yes.”
He found me one of Phil’s T shirts and a pair of boxers, and tucked me neatly into the spare bed. “Tomorrow we will talk. I do not believe there is anything that cannot be put right. Sleep.”
I wanted to. God, how I wanted to! I was so tired it hurt, but my thoughts buzzed: what was I going to tell Piet? What was I going to tell Hansie? What in the name of all that was wonderful was I going to do about this damned MBA? I heard Piet in the shower, and then the lights went out, and I lay in the dark and worried. And after about half an hour, I heard Piet again. “Timmy? You are not asleep, I hear you turning.”
“Sorry. I’m keeping you awake.”
He came in, flipped back the covers and slid in beside me. “If you apologise to me one more time tonight, I will give you something to feel sorry about. Come here. Turn over. Now go to sleep, swaap.”
I didn’t much care if he did call me an idiot. He was warm against my back, and he rubbed slowly at my shoulders and neck. He would fall asleep himself soon if I kept still and quiet, and then. . . then it was nine-thirty and he was shaking me awake, gently.
“Tea. I think you will be well advised to drink no coffee today.”
“Ach, don’t be silly. I advise, I do not forbid. It is not my business. Drink your tea, and then come and have something to eat. And after that, we will talk.”
I rather picked at my breakfast, while Piet flicked through the sports reports in the Sunday paper, muttering under his breath. “It appears that Spider did indeed play well, but the writer has the same doubts as I do about his stamina.”
I knew at once that it had been the wrong question. Piet’s eyebrows went up, although he said only, “Backhurst, his name is. I forget, if I ever knew it, his first name. He is the man against whom Phil has been competing all season for the place at standoff.”
My stomach plummeted. After a moment, I said, quietly, “I should have known that, shouldn’t I? And this is going to make it worse. I’ve got in my briefcase a piece about funding and grass-roots support, which I can tell was written by Phil, but I haven’t the least idea why.”
“Because he is to write for the Gazette, and he wanted your opinion about it.”
There was no hint of judgement or condemnation in his tone. None. But nonetheless, I dropped my head onto my clasped hands on the table.
“I think we need to talk now, Timmy.”
I thought so too. I followed him up the hall, and he turned in time to see my surprise as he opened the living room door. He followed my glance to the closed door of the study.
“You are expecting me to be angry.”
It just burst out of me. “I’ve fucked this all up so badly! I don’t see how you can avoid being angry, I’ve let everybody down so completely.”
“Yes? Tell me then, who is this everybody? How have you let them down?”
“Oh, God, everybody. Jim, because I just can’t get a grip on this MBA. I thought I could and then suddenly I can’t, it’s too much, it’s too difficult, and Hansie because, because, because I haven’t got time for him, and Phil because I haven’t even taken enough interest to know what he’d doing and he wanted something from me and I didn’t give it and Phil gives so much to Hansie that he’s entitled to some return and I didn’t, I didn’t, and you, you always help and I don’t know how you stand it, and I told them to behave sensibly in Wales and the one who didn’t was me. . .” And by now I really was in tears, gasping and trying to talk. And Piet came across the room to me in two long strides, caught me by the arm and swung me round, and placed one stinging smack across my backside, hard enough to shock me into silence.
“We do not do hysteria. You are overwrought still, and that will not help. Come, boetie. Come and sit. Come.”
I followed him to the sofa, but he didn’t just sit, he kicked off his shoes and stretched his legs along the cushions, drawing me into his lap, pulling my head against his chest.
“Now, Phil will come home and find me holding you so and we will be in trouble again. He should be used to it by now. Calmly, now, Timmy. Let us start with your study, for that I think is at the root of all of this.”
“I’m going to fail it.”
“And this is forbidden?”
“No, of course not, but. . .”
Then I sat with nothing else to say, while Piet’s heart sounded under my ear. It was very slow and steady and somehow his calmness was infectious, but when I began to speak again, I sounded tired and dragged.
“I’ve taken it on, and I don’t think I can do it. Jim wanted me to do it, and he’s paying for it, and I thought I could fit it in round everything else, and now I think I can’t. I think. . . I think. . . perhaps I could do it if I had more time for it, but at the end of a day at work, it’s too much. Something else has to go, and the something else is Hansie. Which isn’t fair. I shouldn’t be asking Hansie to suffer for this.”
“What does James think?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t talked to him about it. I’m a big boy now, I have to solve my own problems.”
“Just so, my Tim. Solve them. Address them. You have not addressed this one, have you? You have ignored the real problem, which is a lack of time.”
“I – yes. But I can’t go to college or anything to do it, I can’t be spared at work.”
“That is vanity.”
“Timmy, you were ill last year and Hamiltons did not fail without you. We went to Greece – remember? – for two weeks and in your absence, and Hansie's absence, the company did not go under.”
“Mm. But that was short term. I can’t go for months.”
“Do you need to? Or would a few days every month do it? If you were to say to James: I need time, not at the end of the day, to do this thing you want; what would he say? Does he know how much work is involved? Has anybody from the company done it before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So is it possible that he does not know, any more than you knew, what was involved? If you said to him: I need to spend a day every week at home, dealing with this; would he deny it to you?”
I thought about it. My brain didn’t work properly. “Maybe if I said I would go to the boardroom for a day, or better, for two half days. I would be on site, so maybe if any calls went through Hansie, then if there was something really important I would be there, but I wouldn’t be at my desk so the small stuff wouldn’t be my problem.”
“Good. Now you are beginning to think. And you say to your uncle: yes, we thought it could be done so, but we were wrong. Nobody is to be blamed, we simply did not know. So here is the problem and here is a solution. He may not like it, but it is worth asking him, yes? He might have a better idea. I understand that you want to please him. He is, to all intents, your father and you love him. But Timmy, apart from what this is doing to you, I simply cannot believe that James would want Hansie to suffer for the sake of his company.”
As soon as he said it, I could see it. Jim’s got very fond of Hansie, and if Jim thought that I was managing my life so badly that Hansie was losing out. . .
“I’ve been horrible to Hansie.”
“I’ve just – I don’t know. Not taken him for granted, not exactly. Not taken him at all, I suppose. Ignored him. He wanted me to do things with him, and I kept putting him off. And when he was concerned about me, I ignored him too. I wasn’t listening.”
“Yes? And what are you going to do about it?”
I thought about it.
I could feel the laughter in his chest before I could hear it.
“Yes, my boetie, I think that would do very well.”
“And Phil. He deserves better from his friends than to be ignored. Specially from me.”
“He will forgive you. Although I think the price may be that he will tease you about getting yourself in a mess after you had told him and Hansie to behave in Wales.”
I smiled, rather wanly. “I don’t suppose I’ll die of that.”
“And is that all, Timmy? It is not such a big deal after all, is it?”
“It isn’t all, though, is it? There’s you, too.”
“And what dreadful thing have you done to me?”
“Let you down too. You expect better than this of me.”
I had never said that before. I had thought it often enough, but I had never actually acknowledged it. The Viper’s standards are high and we all try to live up to them, and I had failed.
“Yes. I do.”
I hadn’t really expected him to say it, somehow. It’s the sort of statement that usually prompts a polite denial. The surprise tangled in my throat with the remains of the panic, hysteria, call it what you like, from before, and turned into another desperate sob, and I began to pull away, to get up. He refused to let me go.
“Tim, I know you are capable of better. You know it too. So you will sort yourself out and you will sort out your workload and we will not go here again, O.K.?”
“I won’t. . . I’ll try not to fail anybody any more.”
“And this is where the trouble lies! You cannot bear to fall short, can you, Timmy? Are you never prepared to try and fail? To make a mistake? Tim, I tell Phil, regularly, he must be prepared to try, and fail, and try and try again. To make the same mistake more than once, that is foolishness and carelessness. But to try, and fail, and learn from the failure and try again differently, that will take him forward. It is so for all of us, Tim. It is so for me too. Phil teaches me to cook, and when I make a mistake and what I cook is not palatable, Phil and I eat it anyway. And thus I know next time that I must do it differently. If you fail at a task, it makes that task, as you have performed it, a failure. It does not make Tim Creed a failure, it makes him human. Are you never permitted to make a mistake?”
My glance fell. “I’ve made some fucking big ones this time.”
“Yes. You have. So now you admit to us all that you have made them, you put them right, and you learn from them. And you apply the intellect of which you are rightly proud, and you do not make them again. Where I expect better of you is that I have told you this before. I told you in Greece, you must not make the same mistake as Hansie, who cannot accept that a mistake can be forgiven and allowed to fall into the past. He has an excuse for this, because the mistakes of his youth were thrown up to him again and again until he came to believe that no failing on his part was ever truly forgiven, ever expiated. I think that you did not suffer so.”
No. No. that was true enough. Jim punished hard, but a punishment drew a line under a transgression (usually a set of lines across my backside!) and that was the end of it. Even when I was very small, I knew that although I had perhaps done something which was ‘bad’, Jim and Mary didn’t think that I myself was ‘bad’. Disobedient, yes, cheeky, yes, obstreperous, bloody minded and plain adolescent, yes, but inherently bad, no. Hansie, my Hansie, whom I loved more than anything, was told, so often that he came to believe it, that he himself was at best worthless, at worst bad.
I rested my head back on Piet’s chest and thought about it. Then I sighed.
“Please sir, I screwed up. I took on too much, and then I tried to do it all without help, and then I wouldn’t admit that it was too much, and then I was rude to everybody, and I’m sorry and I’ll try to do better. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“That is precisely it, my Tim.”
“And I’ve got to put it all right with Hansie. And with Phil.”
“Leave Phil to me. But yes, you will need to put it right with Hansie.”
“And with you?”
“Hansie may stand for me.”
I sighed again. I wasn’t sure which would be preferable, Piet now or Hansie later. Either way, I would certainly be sleeping on my face.
“Piet, how do you do this? Why do you do it?”
“Do what, boet?”
I waved a vague hand. “Keep us all on track. I mean, Phil, yes. He’s yours and you’re his.” I pulled my head up to look at him. “It’s as much one as the other, isn’t it? I used to think that Phil belonged to you, but in fact you belong to him too. He owns you as surely as you own him. And I suppose I sort of know why Hansie. Well, I know why Hansie needs you to, and I’m grateful that you do, although I’m not sure that I know what you get out of it. Because it isn’t. . . I mean. . . you don’t. . .”
His chest was trembling with amusement again. I do sometimes wish that he didn’t find me so funny.
“No. It is not. At least it is only incidentally so. I play, too, if that is what you mean.”
I was scarlet.
“I’m sorry, it isn’t my business.”
“It is a fair question. Yes, I play. But this is not play, between us, that is what you mean, is it not? With Hansie, I owe him something. You know what I did to him, Tim. I meant him no harm, but ignorance is not a defence in law, and it is not a moral defence either. Hansie needs something from me, I owe something to Hansie. I will never be free of him until he tells me that he wishes to be free of me, and I fear that the damage done him by his family may not allow that. I have a duty to make such reparation to Hansie as I can, and if this is what he needs from me, I will give it to him.”
I was shocked. “It’s just duty, then?”
“No, not ‘just’. Never ‘just’. Perhaps it was duty to begin with, yes, perhaps. But now, it is more than that.”
I hesitated. I really wanted to know: why me? but at the same time I didn’t want to ask, in case the answer was. . . in case it was only: to please Hansie.
“If you want to know, Timmy, ask.”
I jumped. He will do this, get inside people’s heads. Well, inside my head.
“I. . .”
“Tim, I told you once that you were not mine to punish. When you withdraw your consent from me, I will let you go. You do not even need to tell me why, just that you no longer consent, and we will not cease to be friends. You, I think, will outgrow your need for me, eventually. Phil. . . it is different with Phil. He will outgrow punishment, but I think he will learn to enjoy play. He begins to play now, in a small way. Also, I think he will always be inclined to accept my valuation of his actions sooner than his own. Hansie is different again. Hansie's need is so profound because it is rooted in his belief that he is of no value. You show him from day to day that you value him, and I show him that I know what he was and has been and I value that too. So why do I do what I do, for both you and Hansie? Love, Timmy.”
It’s a wonderful thing to know, to think about in the night. It’s a real bugger for keeping the conversation going, believe me. There is nothing more to say after that declaration, so, however clumsily, I said it.
“I do love you both. You and Phil. And you may be right, I may outgrow my, my need for what you do, but it isn’t yet.”
And then I hid, from pure embarrassment, against his chest. The English aren’t good at overt emotion.
Presently, I began to think again, however slowly.
“I should go home. I’ve taken up so much of your weekend.”
“But really, you must have things to do, and I’ve got. . .”
“But Piet, I. . .”
“Tim, if you go home now, you will think: I could just finish a piece of work before Hansie comes in, and then I will give him my whole attention.”
I had been thinking precisely that. How does he do that?
“So I forbid it. You are still overtired, and you are still overwrought and you will do no more work today. If you try, I will change my mind about letting Hansie take my place, and I will spank you now. So instead, we will go out for an hour and have a change of air until lunchtime, and then you will bear me company until the others come back.”
We went to the park, of all places, and fed the ducks. I don’t think I’ve been to feed the ducks since I was about ten. It’s very calming. And then we went back and Piet let me make the lunch, and we had just finished clearing up when the other two arrived back, still giggling like idiots and very pleased with themselves. Piet caught Hansie's eye and led him off into the study; Phil came into the kitchen with me.
“How was your study day?” he asked, politely.
“Disastrous. I made a complete fool of myself. Get Piet. . . Tell Piet that I said he could tell you all about it. Did you have a good time?”
“Great, thanks,” still politely.
“I’ve. . . um. . . I’ve got your column in my briefcase. I was really impressed. I’m sorry I didn’t get to it before. What did you want to ask me about?”
He hesitated. “It doesn’t really matter, you know.”
“Phil, I’ve been a pain about my MBA, I know, but Piet has reminded me that other things happen in the world. What did you want me to do?”
He relaxed a bit. “I just wanted to know if you thought I was being too technical, or. . . well, dull, I suppose. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
“Well, all I can say is that having started it, I read all the way to the bottom, and I would have done even without knowing it was yours.”
It’s so easy to please Phil that I was ashamed I hadn’t done it earlier, particularly since I could do it with a clear conscience. I wasn’t flattering him, it was true.
“What does Piet want with Hansie, Tim, do you know? It isn’t to do with him taking me away, is it? He was a right mother hen all the time, wouldn’t let me stand up, fussed about my knee, nagged about my tablets and the rest.”
“It’s not you at all, Phil. It’s me. I’m in trouble right up to my eyebrows, for taking on too much and then neglecting Hansie and the rest of you. My sins found me out yesterday and Piet’s told me just about where I get off, and I think he’s probably telling Hansie off for putting up with it. And whatever Hansie's hearing now will be passed on to me before bed, I don’t doubt.”
He thought about this for a moment, and then heaved himself to his feet, picking up one crutch and manoeuvring himself across the kitchen. Just as I heard Hansie and Piet come out to the hall, Phil turned back, gave me a grin and said, “This one’s spare and it sounds as if your need may be greater than mine,” and flicked into my lap – a flexible gel ice pack.
We went home, Hansie and I. Phil had a hug for Hansie, and thanks for taking him to Wales. I had a long hug from Piet, who brushed aside my thanks. Hansie was very thoughtful all the way home, and as soon as he had shut the door behind us, he said, firmly, “It appears that we need to have a little conversation. Go into the living room.” He followed me in, and as I threw myself into the armchair, a dry voice behind me said, “Did I say you could sit?”
So it was going to be like that. My stomach turned over. He wasn’t wasting any time, was he? I stood up again, and glanced at him. God, but he’s big when he’s angry. I sometimes wonder if I change when I’m angry too: something peculiar happens to Piet’s facial structure when he’s annoyed, he goes all cheekbones, and Hansie sort of looms, getting bigger and bigger. He was looming now, in the doorway until the room closed in around me. Then suddenly the moment was broken as he stalked past me to draw the curtains, and turn on the lights. He claimed the armchair himself, and pointed at the floor in front of it.
He was sitting and I was standing: I should have felt the dominant one, but I didn’t. I moved where he indicated.
“Now. Pieter says you ended up in Scotland yesterday. Tell me how this happened.”
I stumbled through the tale again.
“I see. Now, explain to me why you were so weary that you could do this.”
It was no easier going through it with Hansie than it had been with Piet. Harder, if anything, because Hansie didn’t help me. Every time I hesitated, he simply said, “Go on.” I had the distinct impression that I was weaving rope and winding it around my neck with every word. It’s unbelievably hard to stand perfectly still and talk about your own failings, and every time I fidgeted, I was pulled up for it. I can’t remember spending such an unpleasant half hour trying to make a bad story sound good since Cunningham D S and Creed T J had to explain to the headmaster precisely how and why we had managed to blow the doors off the fume cupboard in a science lab which was strictly out of bounds to all pupils outside school hours. That little episode collected me the requirement to learn by heart all twenty school rules – I can still repeat them – plus ten copies of the safety regulations, by hand, and when Jim heard about it I got a sharp six on top.
I ground to an uncomfortable halt, and he left me standing there for something in the region of five years, before he shifted a little in his seat.
“Ja. I see. So you have taken this task, and our relationship must be subservient to it. I had not understood that it was so. And the task is too big for you, but I cannot be permitted to help. Indeed, I cannot even be permitted to know that there is a problem. What is it you were afraid of, that I should tell James that you could not cope? Or merely that I should know that you are not perfect, not omnipotent?”
I made some faint sound of denial, but he thundered straight over the top of me. No, not thundered. He didn’t raise his voice at all. “Have you any idea what that does to me? To know that although I look to you for help every day, I cannot be permitted to help you? That you will go to so much trouble to deceive me?”
“Hansie, it wasn’t. . .”
“Ja, but it was. I knew that you were working very hard, but when I asked about it, you told me, in so many words, that everything was going fine, it just took a long time. You lied.”
“No, not lied, Hansie, I. . .”
“Do you not recall saying that it was going well?”
“Well, yes, but. . .”
“And was it going well?”
“Not exactly, but. . .”
“And that is a lie, is it not?”
Yes. It was. A flat, no holds barred lie.
“And when it began to affect your health, to affect me, when you were not sleeping, you did not tell me. I cannot believe that you were getting up three and four times a week, and not telling me. I could have helped you. If you needed more time, I could have taken on more of the, the little tasks around the house. I would have done the shopping, or the cleaning while you worked. But you told me there was no need, that you could do your share.”
“Hansie, I never said. . .”
“Ja, but you did. When you did not ask me to help, you were telling me every day that everything was fine. And in the end, I needed to be told by Pieter de Vries that my relationship is not what I thought it was. And I do not believe that I was at fault here, either, and nor does he. You lied to me, you lied by omission and by commission both, and without any necessity for it. You thought I would not understand and you gave me no opportunity to understand or not.”
I hung my head.
“And then it is not just me you have hurt, either, ja nee? I told you that Phil wanted to talk to you, and about something that was important to him. He was rightly proud of what he had been asked to do, and at the same time nervous about it, and I told you that. But you were not interested enough to give up five minutes of your time to help him, and yesterday morning you let him see that, you let him see that you thought his affairs were not of any importance. You hurt his feelings. Again. And I was embarrassed by it.”
“Hansie, I have tried to put that right. I’ve talked to Phil about it. I’ve told him I’m impressed.”
“Well, you may get away with it, then, but if you do, it will be because Phil has a kinder heart than you do. I was ashamed of you. You might like to think, your work, and my work has its importance, yes, and Phil’s place is a sportsman only. You say you do not hold such a person, such a profession in much esteem. It is only a game, you say. But we both know you do not believe it, and perhaps you may be so unkind to Phil so often because it is the game you were raised to admire, and he excels where you did not. But he works as hard at what he does, gives up as much for it, as you do for your MBA, and if the Viper is right in his assessment, Phil will be known and remembered throughout a much bigger world than you or I will ever be.”
I looked at the carpet again.
“So. You have achieved a lot with this MBA, hey? You have insulted and offended me, lied to me, deceived me. You have embarrassed me in the face of my friends. You have been unbelievably rude to Phil. You have disappointed Piet. I hope you think it was worth it.”
“Ja? And I can believe this? I can believe you when you tell me so, like I could believe you when you told me all was well? I think I need to give you a lesson in truthfulness. Go upstairs, and bring me the strap. I will use it to make it plain to you that you do not lie to me.”
Well, I had more or less expected it. Actually, I had expected to be taken upstairs for the cane, not the strap. I fetched it, took it to him. He put it down, without looking at it, still looking at me. Such a warm face, normally, and now so cold and hard.
“And after, I will also make it plain to you that your friends are not to be picked up and dropped simply to suit your convenience. For that, I require you to fetch me the paddle.”
Oh fuck. Strap and paddle both. Back up the stairs, collect the thing, take it down.
“Move the sofa.”
Done it before. Rarely as punishment, more usually because he was mock annoyed. Pull it forward to give him room to swing from behind it.
Now excuse me, but that I didn’t like. Yes, true, we punish on the bare, both of us. Apart from anything else, it allows us to see precisely what we’re doing. And when it comes to play, I’ve stripped him, made him strip, just as he has to me. I can take so long undressing him that sometimes he doesn’t get the spanking at all; I’ve stripped for him so slowly that. . . well, those cords never did fit me very well, and I didn’t really mind that they had to go out afterwards. But strip totally for a punishment? No, neither of us had ever done that. I started, trying not to hesitate too much. I was in the wrong and he was punishing so what he said went. I had been bare for the strap before, I reminded myself, but when I dropped the last of my clothing, I didn’t feel bare, I felt naked, and if you don’t know the difference I can’t explain it. He took me by the scruff of the neck and forced me roughly over the back of the sofa and down among the cushions.
“Good. Now you will learn: if you do not care enough about me to tell me the truth for my own sake, you will do it because I will not stand for being lied to. All my life I have understood that it is not in me to inspire great respect or affection, but I had begun to think. . .”
And that was too much. That pushed some button. All the other things he had said, all of them were true. I had indeed insulted him by assuming that he wouldn’t understand, and I had lied to him. I had been vile to Phil. That remark about disappointing Piet was a very great deal too close to the bone. But the notion that he thought I didn’t care –
I shot upright again, just as he swung the strap, and it caught me half round my flank, curling to kiss my hip-bone where a purple bruise blossomed immediately, and I cried out and struck at him, knocking the strap out of his hand.
“No! I won’t. . . No, you can’t. I won’t let you!”
God knows, that lucid and informative sentence helped us enormously, I don’t think. He went white, and stared down at me, and said, flatly, “I see. You no longer trust me. Well. And that – is that” and he turned, walked quite steadily away, and I heard the front door close quietly behind him.
And of course when I had undressed, I had been thinking only of getting my clothes off, not of putting them on again, so my shirt was half inside out, one sock was still inside a trouser leg, and I hadn’t unfastened my shoe laces. By the time I could decently open the door myself, the lights of the car were at the end of the street.
Click on Idris the Dragon to go back
© , 2005